Monday, February 22, 2016

Theodore Le Berthon (1892-1960)-Part Seven

Several years ago Ted Le Berthon resigned his post as assistant editor of the Catholic Digest in order to devote more time to creative writing. . . . As general assignment reporter on New York, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Los Angeles newspapers, he developed as a writer through the discipline of journalism. Seeing the white man's injustice to Negroes as one of the gravest national problems, he has used his pen in various ways to help solve the race problem. His efforts in this direction include his work as contributing editor to the Negro Digest, his column, "White Man's Views" for The Pittsburgh Courier, the nation's leading Negro weekly newspaper, and his short story The Racist, recently published in The Sign
--from the introduction to "I Took Thee, Constance" by Theodore Le Berthon
in Many-Colored Fleece edited by Sister Mariella Gable, O.S.B.

Ted Le Berthon worked for the Los Angeles Daily News (or Evening News) during the 1930s. In the latter part of the decade, in about 1936-1938, he began a column called "Night Court." Initially he wrote about what went on at night at the Lincoln Heights Jail and Court. Soon he was writing--by some indications obsessively--about race, religion, poverty, discrimination, and other social issues. An article in the California Eagle, a black newspaper, from January 20, 1938, tells of a presentation he made to a women's club. Note that even by early 1938, his column was considered "widely-read" and "popular."
Ted Le Berthon, widely-read columnist and author of the popular Evening News feature, "Night Court," also spoke [to the club]. Mr. Le Berthon spoke against racial discrimination and dwelt largely on the theme of equality of all, because God created all. He advanced the belief that eventually discrimination as well as racial differences would disappear as an inevitable result of fusion of the races.
In an interview called "Paste Pots, Booze, Liberalism and BB-Guns: A Talk with L.A. Newspaper Historian Rob Wagner," the author Rob Leicester Wagner had more to say about Le Berthon:
One interesting character they [the Los Angeles Daily News] had was named Ted LeBerthon, and he's in the book [Red Ink, White Lies: The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles Newspapers, 1920-1962 by Rob Leicester Wagner (2000)]. He was what you'd call today the minority affairs reporter. His job was to hang around the Lincoln Heights Jail and Lincoln Heights Court---night court, back then---and just record the folks that came in and out of jail and court. Inevitably, there were a lot of blacks and latinos that went through there, and he started writing about their stories. He was largely responsible, in the late '30s, for writing about blacks and latinos, and their issues. And he had his personal phonograph record player that he'd haul from his apartment, over to the newsroom, and put up on the windowsill, and play black jazz all night. There were a lot of staffers who loved it, and a lot who hated it. After a while, he started writing more about religion issues, and I don't know if he became mentally ill or unbalanced or what, but he pretty much became a religious fanatic, and that's all he wrote. According to one staffer I talked to, he began to see the face of Jesus Christ in every homeless man that ever walked in looking for a handout, and they eventually had to let him go. But for a brief, shining moment for a five year period, he was the only man in town who took the time to write about the downtrodden and the folks that live on the fringes. (1)
In his more recent book, The Battle for Los Angeles: Racial Ideology and World War II (UNM Press, 2006), Kevin Allen Leonard looked more deeply into the controversy involving Ted Le Berthon, race, religion, and his firing from the Los Angeles Daily News. Mr. Leonard related the story especially to the Zoot Suit Riots of June 1943. Le Berthon was sympathetic to the wearers of zoot suits, seeing them as poor and underprivileged young men who "resented being treated as 'lower classes'." (2)

Three months after the Zoot Suit Riots, in late September 1943, Berthon was fired from the Los Angeles Daily News. The aforementioned California Eagle felt that Le Berthon was dismissed "because of 'too-frequent' mention of discrimination against Negro people in his writing." (3) Le Berthon provided his own explanation, writing that he had been let go "on the grounds that I had failed to heed repeated warnings against over-emphasizing my religious views and the inter-racial philosophy flowing from them." (4) A quote and a reference in Wikipedia suggest that Le Berthon's column of September 14, 1943, pleading for someone to rent or sell a home to black clarinetist Jimmie Noone, was the last straw. (5) However it happened, in September 1943, because of his writing on race and other controversial topics, Ted Le Berthon found himself out of a job.

I don't know exactly what happened after that or in what order. It seems that Le Berthon lost his anchor when he lost his job with the Daily News. He wrote a column called "The White Man's Views" for the Pittsburgh Courier in the 1940s. With Dan Marshall, his old college roommate, he founded the Catholic Interracial Council of Los Angeles. (6) Le Berthon was also involved in the Catholic Worker Movement and its newspaper, The Catholic Worker. And while living in St. Paul, Minnesota, and working as associate editor of The Catholic Digest, he shared a room with the Catholic writer James Farl Powers (1917-1999). In 1944, Le Berthon received the first annual Blessed Martin de Porres Award for his work in interracial relations. Then in 1947, while he was living in Elmira, New York, a deeper crisis came into his life.

To be continued . . .

Notes
(1) You can read the full interview at:
(2) Quoted in Leonard, p. 162.
(3) Quoted in Leonard, p. 194.
(4) Quoted in Leonard, p. 195.
(5) The reference: LeBerthon, Ted, "White Man’s Views: A Tribute to Jimmie Noone; Recalls Hardships Suffered by Celebrated Musician," from the Pittsburgh Courier, May 6, 1944.
(6) I don't know where Le Berthon went to college. Their founding of the Catholic Interracial Council of Los Angeles may have come before Le Berthon's firing. (I don't have a date.)

A zoot-suiter in happier times.

Text copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley

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